Many undergraduates—even some high school students—have a particular field in mind that requires graduate study, and so prepare for it early on. College graduates in the workforce—fairly soon or years after earning their bachelors’ degrees—may want to take up an old interest, develop a new one, or meet a requirement for advancement in their career.
In all of these cases, graduate school will take years of one’s life, a great deal of disciplined effort, and often some sacrifice—in the financial area if no other. How does one maximize the “return on investment” of graduate school? Investigating the following areas is a good place to start.
Where Will You Thrive?
Choose a field that excites you.
It has become a cliché to speak of success in any field of endeavor as being based on one’s “passion”. The theory—and often the reality—is that only in a field one really cares about can one truly shine, by virtue of a compelling motivation to strive, to persist, and to overcome the obstacles and negotiate the trade-offs that may present themselves in any enterprise.
The relevance to maximizing the return on your investment is that graduate study is a two-way street. The best faculty enjoy teaching to begin with, and passion and enthusiasm from their students spark them to give their best.
Find a department whose approach to its discipline resonates with you.
Nursing, as one example, has a theoretical component in addition to its practical and technical aspects. In looking for a nursing school, you might want to familiarize yourself with the various approaches to nursing and what schools are associated with them, at least to the extent of knowing whether or not you’re likely to be comfortable and productive at a particular school.
Do the school’s library and other resources support the kind of work you want to do?
If you’re looking at a prominent or well-endowed school, the answer is most likely yes, but there may be particulars you want to know about.
For film students, film departments, in general, may be “the cheapest rental houses around”, but the ins and outs of who gets to use what equipment for what purpose may vary widely.
If you have a focused interest in the humanities, you may want to consider which institutions have the kind of “research libraries” with particular documents or archives you need and perhaps apply not only to those schools but neighboring ones as backups.
What Do Faculty, Students, And Alumni Tell You About A School?
Are there “stars” who teach in your chosen field?
If someone still teaching has inspired you to enter your chosen field, or their work centrally informs the way you understand it, you should apply to at least one school that has your “dream” mentor(s).
Whether or not you get to work directly with such people, their presence and influence are likely to be rewarding.
A graduate faculty chooses its students.
Selecting students for admission is under the control of each graduate department rather than the university as a whole. (In practice, admissions are decided by a committee of the faculty, whose composition will vary over time.)
A sincere enthusiasm for the kind of research, writing, or other creative work coming out of a department—or appropriately modest connections with your own work to date—can put your best foot forward in the admissions process. (By the way, this is not an occasion for sucking up or name-dropping. Be sure there is some objective basis for any connections you suggest in your application.)
Have a department’s alumni gone on to excel in their field? And have those who have excelled, like Spike Lee at NYU, returned to teach?
Creative work, conferences, and publications provide evidence. Does an art department you’re interested in maintaining a gallery? What does the work done by their students and faculty tell you?
Particularly in academic fields, there’s a great paper trail for how far departments advance the careers of their students. If you don’t know the professional organization for your chosen field of study, you owe it to yourself to find out.
If you are unable to attend one of their conferences, get hold of the “proceedings” from such a conference, often available in university libraries (“abstracts”, or summaries, may be available online).
Are any schools prominently represented in setting the agenda for their field? Are their graduate students among the presenters at such conferences? (And returning to an earlier point, do faculty or students from one school or another seem to be doing the kind of work that most interests you?)
What Does The Admissions Procedure Tell You About The School (And About Yourself)?
Once you’ve figured out what you’re looking for, admissions requirements will tell you what the schools that intrigue you are looking for.
If they’re asking you for a portfolio that you don’t have, your time may not be well spent trying to cobble something together—or their requirement could be just the spur you need to pull together what you’ve done to date into a more coherent body of work.
In either case, realistically assess what your application tells you about your prospective department’s expectations of its students, and whether or not you fit
Does a Given Degree Confer Prestige In Its Field (Or Is A Degree Required At All?)
Although film schools have produced many noted filmmakers, a degree opens no doors to the industry—rather, entrance is gained by the work one is able to produce, whether that work is produced in graduate school, as an undergraduate, or independently of any institution.
Pop musicians may be able to make it on their own with the right combination of effort and luck, but classical musicians, whatever their skills, may have an edge based on where or with whom they have studied. MBA’s may be widely available, but (as with many fields) degrees from Harvard will have additional cachet.
Schools with stellar reputations may have them for all sorts of reasons, and arguably may deserve them or not; indisputably, though—and again, varying from field to field—this is one area where the prestige of a school can translate directly into opportunities for their alumni.
You owe it to yourself to apply to at least one school you think is “too good for you”, or beyond your reach. Give yourself the chance to turn them down.
Does Your Chosen Field Offer Online Study?
Yes, Virginia, there are online graduate degrees. Decades of research have shown that distance students are at no disadvantage to on-campus students when it comes to learning—and may even have a slight edge.
That said, you should carefully investigate not only the prestige factors but the traditional forms of networking in a given field that might favor study in residency.
The College Graduate To-Do List
Graduation has finally come, the college years are over. Exams, research papers, all-nighters, and yes, even the crazy parties that made you turn green have come to an end. You’ve accomplished a lot, and whether or not you’re going to continue your higher education, you’ve made a footprint in your life that you’ll remember years from now.
However, all of that work is now about to be replaced by the work of another kind. The post-grad experience has never been an easy one; where will you live, how will you pay for it, and what’s for dinner? If you haven’t been preparing for life after college, you may be in for a rude awakening.
1. Kill the Debt
Like most students, you’re probably leaving college with some debt, whether from student loans or credit card debt. You have a bit of a grace period to pay back your student loans; so if credit cards have been your main source of income during your college years, you may want to search for an organization that can help you with your debt management and money management. Consolidated Credit is a well-known source for this.
2. Old Habits Die Hard
While we’re on the subject of killing your credit card debt, we may as well as talk about some of the other bad habits you may want to stop. Four years may not seem like a long time, but college years have to be the longest and they’re plenty of time to make horrible habits a common thing. In the real world, some of these practices will hurt you on the way out.
- Tardiness – Sure, in an auditorium of students, sneaking in after the start time probably was easy. But when you have a job and need to punch in the time clock to begin your shift, being late is the fast track to being terminated.
- Partying all night – As you age, partying and drinking as you did in college soon becomes a thing of the past. Not just because you’re older and probably more mature, but because recuperation the next day is probably the worst experience ever. Plus, your wallet takes as bad of a beating as your kidneys.
- Being a night owl – Your sleep habits will also be changing as you go through the post-grad transition. You may find yourself needing to sleep and wake up earlier than you’re used to. It’s better to change your sleep schedule early on rather than shutting your eyes at 3 am for an 8 am job.
3. Furnishing your new place
If you’re moving into your own apartment or house, think about the necessities before you buy a new TV or sound system. Give a look around at the appliances you already own and what can you make use of. What utilities and amenities does your new shack have? You’ve got to manage your money and start budgeting better once college is over. Buy the necessary things like a bed, toiletries, and such first. Appliances can come later.
4. Get an Early Start
Many college students start their job search before graduation. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you already have an internship or stepping stone lined up after you cross the stage with your diploma. However, if you missed the memo and need to start your job search, there are a few things you should prepare before you blindly apply to jobs.
- Update your resume and/or create a portfolio
- Build an online presence, even if it’s just on LinkedIn or Twitter
- Clean up your online presence—No one cares if you can do a keg stand, nor does it fit on an application
- Network and find out who from college has some pull in the corporate world
- Start contacting potential employers and send them your resume and samples of your work
5. The Job Search
There are a few things that can keep you from getting a job, and the best thing you can do is be prepared.
- If you weren’t looking for a job already and have a late start, then think of this like crunch time.
- Social media is your best friend and worst enemy. We covered this above in editing your online presence.
- Do some research on the companies you’re interested in, just to get a feel for the place. The interviewer may or may not ask you if you’ve taken a look at their website or what they do.
Knowing what you’re getting into after graduation is the best way to prepare for some of the problems and rough patches you may hit. Use this list to get organized so you can be ready for the journey ahead.